New holiday would honor contributions of black soldiers to Alaska Highway

The Alaska Highway was constructed during World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but it remains vitally important to Alaskans.

Yet, many are unaware of its unique history.

State lawmakers are considering making a new holiday to honor the contributions of black soldiers who helped build what is still the only road connecting Alaska to the Lower 48.

Reginald Beverly turned 102 two weeks ago. He is one of over 4,000 black soldiers who helped build the Alaska Highway.

On Feb. 14, Beverly called Juneau from his home in Virginia to say a few words to legislators who are considering commemorating his and his comrades’ efforts.

“I would like to say thank you for honoring the soldiers who worked on the Alcan Highway,” he said.

Jean Pollard has been in touch with Beverly for the last few years as part of the Alaska Highway Memorial Project, a group that wants to see the highway’s unique history honored.

“I’m a retired educator, and I had graduated from high school here and college here and never had heard that story this way,” she said. “Because of what these soldiers did in 1942 in Alaska in all the harsh conditions, on July the 26th, 1948, then President Truman declared all military would be integrated.”

In addition to this milestone in civil rights history, 1948 was also the year that the Alaska Highway opened to the public.

Pollard first learned about the contributions of black soldiers through a journalist named Lael Morgan. Morgan wanted to write about the highway 25 years ago when she worked for National Geographic, but things didn’t go as planned.

“When I discovered that the bulk of the troops who built the part in Alaska were black, and discovered what they had gone through to do that job, I wanted to focus on it and that’s not the kind of story that National Geographic wanted to do,” she said.

The story cost Morgan her job, but she didn’t give up.

She put together a museum exhibit that toured the country and hosted a reunion for the black soldiers that she was able to contact.

“The black soldiers who I found and located were on ‘Good Morning America’ and we got a write-up in the New York Times. And so, and then, people just sort of kind of forgot … It’s time to remind people again who built our highway,” she said.

The legislation is sponsored by Sen. David Wilson, and it would make Oct. 25 African American Soldiers’ Contribution to Building the Alaska Highway Day. It’s quite a mouthful, but it definitely gets the point across.

It was Oct. 25, 1942, that black troops building south met white troops building north.

One of the few photographs of the black soldiers depicts their meeting. Gary Zepp, staff to Sen. Wilson, explained the picture to legislators Feb. 14.

“This is a picture of Cpl. Refines Sims Jr., an African-American from Philadelphia. He was driving his bulldozer south when he saw trees starting to topple over him,” he said, pointing to the picture. “He slammed his vehicle into reverse and they backed out just as another bulldozer, driven by Pvt. Alfred Jalufka of Kennedy, Texas, broke through the underbrush. A wire service photographer captured this image, standing on their respective bulldozers, and this occurred 20 miles east of the Alaska-Yukon border.”

Both men are beaming as they shake hands.

The Alaska Highway Memorial Project’s website refers to the highway as the “Road to Civil Rights.” They hope to turn Oct. 25 into a day reminding all Alaskans of how their highway paved the way for desegregation in the United States.

So far 16 senators have signed on to co-sponsor the bill.

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